A Conversation with Katharine Heller About Rollerskating and Filing Cats’ Nails, (aka Being a Professional Actor)
Whenever I order a beer, I wonder what that bartender would rather be doing, if her eyeshadow is actually leftover from a dress rehearsal for some off-off-Broadway play that might get a dozen audience members on a good night. I spoke with Katharine Heller, a former bartender and current actor/comedian/writer/podcast host, about this transition from behind the bar to in front of the crowd. As she does in her podcast Tell the Bartender, she entertained me with stories about her comedy punk band Bitch Chicks on the Rag and filing the nails of cats with stagefright, all in the name of acting. We talked about how she pays her bills, the importance of stage combat, and how bartending made her a better actor.
You’re a self-described “multi-hyphenate”: actor, comedian, writer, podcast host. Does one job title come before the others?
Right now, being an actor is, believe it or not, making me the most money. But that wasn’t always the case. I do a lot of voiceover and TV commercial work, and that’s where I’ve been getting enough money to pay my rent and get health insurance. But it changes all the time. I make a little bit of money on the podcast from donations and a little bit from writing. But mostly acting is my profession of choice, and also what has been commercially the most successful in the last two years. It took me a long time to get to that point. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Before this I was a personal assistant, a bartender, even now I still babysit.
How long did it take to get to this point?
Twenty years of working at it. The first 10 years was just building my resume and training, working for free a lot, because I wasn’t in the unions but I needed to get good and build my resume. And then I got to the point where I had the connections, and I started getting noticed by agents and managers. Even after I signed with a commercial agent, it took me a couple years before I started making money. So overnight, basically [laughs].
Do you see Monday through Friday as your work week?
I don’t really like taking vacations because I don’t like to feel that my life is a job. I’m at the point now where I’m my own boss, and I worked very hard to get here. So even when I am quote-unquote on vacation, I think it’s totally okay to open my computer and send a few emails. Monday through Friday I try to structure my time a little bit more, but I’m in a relationship with another entertainer, and the weekend is his work week, so it’s just been really fluid. Even if I weren’t with him it still would likely be fluid, because I perform a lot on the weekends or do storytelling shows or live podcasts.
When you’re working does it feel like work?
Sometimes yes, I’ll be honest. I give myself deadlines for the podcast and I do force myself to keep to them. I give myself writing deadlines. I’m working on a new podcast project right now, a new radio play, so that’s a project I’m hoping to make money on eventually. I’m also a writer; I’ve written plays and such, and I love writing dialogue. So yes, I do sometimes, but it’s definitely better than working for someone else.
Do you enjoy commercial and voiceover work even though you have to do them for money?
I love it. Because it still is acting and you’re around creative people. Even on the set of a commercial, everyone has a creative aspect to them. So it always feels like a fun work environment. I don’t book commercials every single day, they come every few months or so, but that to me is definitely not work. I mean I’m there, I’m professional, I memorize my lines, but it’s so much fun. That is probably the most fun I’ll ever have.
Is there anything in your professional life where you can anticipate your income?
No, and that’s a scary thing. I want to be clear that I’m not a trust fund kid and I am still paying off student loans and I am almost 40. (In a few years, but still.) In my 20s, I scraped by and was living paycheck to paycheck. When I hit 30, I realized I really needed health insurance and I needed money saved up. And that’s when I took a job working as a personal assistant. Even though I wasn’t able in the first few years to audition as much, I needed to start saving money so I could then go back to this thing. I worked my butt off so that I could be in a position right now where if I don’t make money this week, I’m not panicking.
One piece of advice I would give to someone making the leap is that there’s no shame in having to “sell out” for a small period of time if it means you can do whatever you need to do. The thing about freelancing is you don’t know every week. This week I made zero dollars, maybe next week I’ll get a residual check. But I’m not too worried because I’ve saved enough and I always know if I ever need to, I can bartend or babysit.
When you were working as a personal assistant, was that full-time, regular hours?
I kind of fell into this really amazing thing. I was looking for the perfect office/non-office job, and I found it. It was for a hedge fund, and I said, “Listen, I’m an actress. I audition a lot during the day. I can’t have a desk job.” And we had a great system where I was able to do it and audition and book jobs. It got to the point where I started booking more jobs, and I felt it was unfair to them. When I left, it felt like a break-up. But I could see myself having stayed for the next 10 years, and I didn’t want to do that. I was ready to take the leap.
Do you worry about money?
Oh, all the time. Absolutely. But I’ve also learned that there’s only so much you can worry in a day. It’s a waste of time. Ultimately I’m going to be fine. I have enough skills in life and connections where I know if I made a phone call and said, “I’m screwed,” I could get hired somewhere. I worry about money, but I’m more worried about making money doing what I love than about making money in general.
Do you ever work for free, and if so, how do you decide whether to do it?
I do. As an actor, I’m not allowed to work for free because I’m in all the unions. But if it’s for something like a web series, right now unions are still a little iffy about that. I’ll do it if I know that web series is going to launch something or make me more visible. I do a lot of storytelling shows for free because I’m put in front of more people. But right now when I do plays or commercials or films, I get paid. I could legally only take something through my union at the lowest pay of $100 a day, and I would do that if I liked the film.
Do you think the Internet has made the acting profession easier or harder?
Everything’s changed since I was studying acting. You have to act and write and do your own web series to promote your work now. In my early twenties, this was right before the Internet started, before YouTube — I know I’m aging myself — we were taught a different thing: this is what you do to get an agent and that’s what you do to get in the movies. And then it just changed dramatically. I was doing a lot of comedy, so luckily the people I was doing sketch and improv with, they were marketing themselves through the Internet and I learned from them. You can now make your own work, which you couldn’t do before, but the problem is now everyone’s making their own work. So I’d say a little bit harder and a little bit easier, but for different reasons.
Your skills on your resume include stage combat and rollerskating. Is this you being funny, or is this you being serious?
Casting directors want to know these things. They have to know these things. I do try to be a little bit funny, because it does help. I’m a playwright, so I’ve had shows where I’ve been behind the casting table, and it helps on a resume if you’re funny. If you look at my old resume on Actor’s Access, I’ve ticked off like 500 things I can do. The ones I chose to put on my resume are funny, but also things people ask about the most.
Your resume also says you’re “great with kids, animals, and people who behave like kids and animals.” What is your favorite kid, animal, or person behaving like a kid or animal story?
This is my favorite story ever. I was cast to be in a sketch on an MTV2 show years ago, and I was cast as the mom, who is filing the nails of a cat. It was for a product called the “Pet-o-file.” I’m allergic, but I’m great with animals. The first cat didn’t work out because it had stage fright. They brought in another cat, and I sat it down, and I’m filing its nails. Then they bring in my children. And the children they cast, they cast two African-American children. And the PAs looked at each other everyone was like, “Fuck!” But the director was like, “It’s funny,” so they kept the kids in. But the entire time the kids are like [whispering], “You’re not black” and I’m like [whispering] “I know.” But we made it fun and the kids were running around, and it was a really funny day. They say never work with children or animals, but I loved it. It was one of the best.
What’s the weirdest acting gig you’ve ever had?
I was doing a casting callback for a commercial, and a little girl was called back to be my daughter, but she didn’t want to be an actress. I love kids, and I’m really good with them, so I can tell when they’re like, “Stranger danger.” And her mom was like, “Sit in her lap!” So now there’s a camera rolling. She sits in my lap and she’s just tense, and I felt terrible. But the director’s telling me, “Okay, now touch her hair, and pat her leg,” and I’m like “Oh my God, I’m being asked for money to touch a child who doesn’t want to be touched!” She’s looking at her mom and I actually turned to her and said, “I know I’m not your real mom,” and she’s like, “I know.”
Okay, now onto the podcast, of which I’m a huge fan. Why “Tell the Bartender?”
The one thing I missed most about being a bartender was hearing people’s stories. I used to play a game with myself on a slow night, if there was no one in the bar that I knew. I’d be like, I’m going to go to that person and find out the most interesting thing about them. And every time I did that, I would find out the most fascinating shit. So I love storytelling shows, but a lot of those people would never get onstage, because they have stage fright. When I do live shows, I have celebrities to pull an audience. But I prefer talking to people who would never get onstage, and who will tell a story that is just incredible. Everyone’s got a story. Whenever I meet someone and they’re like, “Oh I don’t have any,” I’m like, “Give me an hour.”
Has bartending had some influence on your creative work?
It built my confidence, because when you bartend, you’re behind this thing and you’re in charge of the alcohol and people come to you. It’s this total power shift, and you get worshipped. That’s one thing I miss about bartending, this feeling of, “I’m in control and this is my stage.” It also made me more able to handle situations I wouldn’t be used to. It’s a lot like improv. You never know what’s going to happen in a scene, or on a given night, or in an audition. So I walk into every audition with the same confidence I had bartending, but also feeling out the room. Like, is this person going to be weird? I won’t crack a joke then.
Is the podcast mostly a labor of love, in terms of how it fits into your career?
Labor of love, it started out, but it’s turned into helping my career. I’ve done a lot of shows and writing jobs that didn’t take off, some that did. Everything I do is a labor of love, and one in ten of my children get picked up from the orphanage. So now it’s become the most lucrative thing in my career, besides commercial work. As in the most interest, attention, positive feedback. And I know I can’t pay my rent in that, but it helps.
You were in a band called Bitch Chicks on the Rag. What’s the story behind this? Because I really wish I had been in the room when you came up with that name.
I was in an improv group in college. I wanted to write a comedy band based on the band God is My Copilot, and I already knew it was called Bitch Chicks on the Rag. Then our improv group was asked to open for a band. So I had this idea: how about we come up with a song, and have someone come out and say “Welcome to Battle of the Bands,” and then have a fake battle? So we sang our song and introduced the other band, and then we left. The next day, the band was pissed because we pranked them without thinking about it, and I do feel bad. But after that, people wanted more Bitch Chicks. So we wrote more songs and started performing at parties all over campus, and we were asked to play at a few clubs. I was in this comedy punk band that people were taking seriously, and I loved it. If it had been now, oh man, it would have been all over YouTube.
You taught improv?
I love teaching because it reminds you as a performer what it is that you need to do. I feel I’m a better improviser when I teach improv, because I’m constantly reminded to follow the rules, and I see mistakes that I used to make that my students make, and it ingrains in me, “Oh yeah, don’t do that.” It’s easy to get lazy, especially if you perform with the same people. Teaching to me is the best way to teach yourself.
Did you get into it because you wanted to teach?
There was a demand for it. I was in a show that ran for a long time, called Naked In a Fishbowl. We were all women doing improv, and a lot of women would come up to us and say, “I want to take an improv class, but I get intimidated.” It was Improv 101 just for women in a safe space, no comedians to judge you. And then every single one of my students went on to take improv. Then I opened it up to men because I had guys coming up to me saying, “I’m also kind of scared.” That was my goal, to get people really excited about improv. We made money, but we did it because we believed in it. My advice for anyone: no matter who you are, take an improv class. It’s like religion to me. When I wake up, I never know what’s going to happen. Your scene partners, i.e. all the people in your life, you can’t give them a script. This is the best advice I can give to freelancers: just show up. You never know what’s going to happen, and be open to whatever’s going to happen.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to retire?
No, but here’s why: I don’t want to. Much like I don’t like taking vacations because I love what I’m doing. I can’t imagine sitting at home and not wanting to write or perform. So maybe I’ll retire in that I understand I won’t make as much money as I want to, but I’ll always be writing or performing. If I made a million dollars every year and I could comfortably retire, I wouldn’t. I’d get a really sweet house, but I wouldn’t retire.
Eliza Berman lives in Brooklyn, where she sits at home writing and yelling out the window at neighborhood shenanigans. She tweets sometimes.
Photo: Tom Scola